Why more and more sports organisations are entering the esports space

Each year, new reports and analysis are issued asserting that numbers around esports continue to grow. There’s more esports content than ever to consume, the prize-pools for professional players continues to shoot upward and there are more games than ever competing for the attention of fans.

And as the value of the esports space has risen, so too has the number of professional sporting organisations investing in it.

Earlier this year, the AFL announced a new partnership with Riot Games that will see the launch of a new Melbourne-based League of Legends tournament in November called League of Legends: League of Origin.

At the time, AFL General Manager, Growth, Digital and Audience, Darren Birch said that this partnership will expose a new audience to the AFL and provide a great opportunity to engage a new wave of fans.

Speaking at the recent Sydney’s 2018 The Esports Conference, Birch elaborated and spoke frankly about his experience transitioning into the esports space and the role that legacy sporting organisations like the AFL can play in it.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

During his speech, Birch shed light on how his larger role overseeing the AFL’s media and digital platforms informed his approach to esports.

According to him, “the idea is to bring those things together to try and make sure that we continue to grow the game, grow the audience and grow our revenues and make sure that we continue to be relevant into the future.”

He said that his “sliding doors” moment around esports came when he attended a conference talk on  esports where a speaker starkly characterised the differences between attending their son’s soccer matches and Overwatch matches.

“He said that if I compare the soccer experience to the esports experience as a parent, as a family and as an experience, it killed the soccer experience.”

Birch says that esports is “a brave new world for us."

"Particularly for traditional sport, you’ll see that there is massive media fragmentation going on at the moment. There’s broadcast disruption. There’s a whole range of things about athlete brand strength coming to the fore ahead of league, ahead of team etc and the consumer wants content at their fingertips through multiple channels, when they want it and how they want it.”

“This is a really, really big opportunity and if we don’t think about how this can play a role in our game and what we’re going to do, we’d be silly.”

He’s far from the only Australian sports executive looking to do so, with Adelaide Football Club’s Chief Operating Officer Nigel Smart also speaking at this year's Esports Conference.

Adelaide FC purchased one of the region’s most prominent League of Legends teams, Legacy Esports, back in 2017. And as both the Project Lead for Legacy Esports and the High School Esports League, Smart had plenty of insights on what it’s actually takes for traditional sports organisations to adapt to the unique attributes of the esports experience.

Refuting the common misconception that he's trying to turn Legacy fans into Adelaide Crows members, he says that "we’re not even trying to engage with that particular fanbase for Legacy." To him, the two entirely different audiences.

Smart says that they don't even put that much Legacy content on their AFC platform, and that it wouldn't make sense to.

“We primarily post when there is a massive announcement, which is rare.”       

“When you have one team, you’re focused on that one team. The content written on that one team has to be deep, engaged and knowledgeable. You cannot write airy-fairy content.”

Smart is blunt, calling this out an initial challenge for Adelaide FC’s own “internal capabilities”.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

“Our media team in the Adelaide Football club cannot write League of Legends content. They cannot undertake or edit a video of League of Legends. They have no idea.”

“They have no idea.”

Of course, Legacy Esports doesn’t just have one team. It has six. The esports brand collectively fields professional players across League of Legends, Starcraft 2, Overwatch, Rocket League, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Super Smash Bros.

This multiplies that challenge manifold.

Smart says that “in running multiple teams, you’re dealing with multiple fan-bases with deep understanding and knowledge of those games.”

“You have to be authentic and you have to be super spot-on in terms of how you communicate with that particular fan-base. We’ve found that challenging in Legacy. Having multiple teams with limited staff and resourcing is a juggling act.”

To help manage this, Smart says that “there is a lot of infrastructure we’re starting to put around these teams just as we do a professional team.”

“Most of the teams have a coach. Our League of Legends team has a gaming house. All the League of Legends teams have a gaming house in Sydney. They have a head coach. They have analysts. They have support or wellness coaches.”

Another hurdle that Smart cited is cost-management.

He says, “to be blunt, it takes time to actually monetize in esports.”

“There are many organizations we deal with have chief marketing officer. They will not know what esports is. A lot of companies do - but a lot don’t. So the timeframe of actually explaining esports and why they should be involved is just a longer lead-in time.”

Expanding on this point, Smart says that “in terms of [attracting] brands like Toyota, Domayne, those bigger brands. We’ve got some ways to go.”